Report: what do the public think about digital technologies for mental health?

The evaluation of Digital Health Technologies (DHTs) – such as apps or wearables – is a priority in many areas of healthcare, given they offer the potential for new routes to quickly and conveniently access safe and effective therapies at a time when many frontline services are under huge pressure.

Mental health is an area with a particularly intuitive benefit case for DHTs, given long waiting lists for many types of treatments and the apparent suitability of approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for digitisation.

Crucial to whether these benefits are likely to be realised, however, is the public perception of DHTs in mental health.

NHS England recently commissioned the Health Innovation Network South London (HIN) to understand the current public view of these types of technology. Hearing the views of more than 850 users and non-users of DHTs across an online survey and focus groups, the research found a number of key themes related to barriers and drivers of DHT usage:

Key figures

Use of DHT

  • 61% reported that they had used or considered using DHTs.
  • The rest reported they had not considered using DHTs or would not be open to using them (39%)

Healthcare referrals to DHT

  • From our survey, 60% of participants indicated that they had been recommended DHTs during a consultation or by their healthcare provider

DHT used/tested

We asked respondents who had tried DHTs before a consultation the types of DHTs they had used previously:

  • Mobile applications: 93% had utilised app-based digitally delivered therapy (such as SilverCloud).
  • Online platforms: 63% accessed platforms that communicate symptom assessments to healthcare providers (such as Limbic).
  • Chatbots/Web support: 59% had engaged with automated or web-based mental health support systems.

Information seeking

In addition, we asked participants to select sources of information about DHTs. They included:

  • Social media: 65% discovered DHTs through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
  • Healthcare professionals: 53% were informed by healthcare professionals.
  • Educational/work institutions: 36% of the respondents connected via schools and workplaces.

Drivers to engaging with DHTs

  • Accessibility and flexibility

    DHTs offer more flexibility and better accessibility over traditional care, making it more convenient.

  • Anonymity

    This was valued in the context of mental health care. Participants stated that the stigma of mental health sometimes made it more difficult to ask for help and liked the potential anonymity offered by DHTs.

  • Personal recommendations

    Trusted sources such as friends, family, and trusted healthcare providers and perceived benefits are crucial in helping people to engage.

  • Post-recommendation support

    Healthcare professionals are well-placed to provide optimal post-recommendation support for the optimal use of DHTs.

Barriers to engaging with DHTs

  • Preference for personal interaction

    There was a strong desire for human-led treatment, especially in mental health contexts, though there is DHT potential in prevention, early intervention, and recovery.

  • Lack of awareness or perceived lack of effectiveness

    Many potential beneficiaries are either unaware of or sceptical about DHTs, showing a need for better education on their capabilities.

  • Fear of limited treatment choices

    Participants raised concerns about losing the right to choose or change treatment if a DHT approach is not effective or suitable.

  • Trust in technology

    There were concerns over privacy and data security with new digital tools. Additional challenges were noted for those with mental health issues using technology.

The report also identified a number of characteristics associated with openness to using DHTs for mental health, such as age, gender and confidence using technology.

The report also details a number of recommendations based on the insights collected during the project to support effective policymaking in the future. These include:

  • Increasing communications and engagement about DHTs for the public;
  • Developing healthcare professionals’ confidence regarding DHTs;
  • Improving how healthcare professionals support users of DHTs and consider hybrid models of care;
  • Optimise DHT user experience; and
  • Ensure patient autonomy and ability to choose and change treatments.

Download the report

Read the full report to find out more about the public perception of DHTs in mental health.

Download the report